There is a lot at stake to increase women’s economic productivity and labor participation in Malaysia. Efforts to empower working women will be crucial for the country’s transformation to a high-income economy by 2025. But it will take concerted action to help women realize their potential and reclaim lost ground. Women were hit hard during the pandemic and continue to face barriers impacting their ability to work.
Yet, this moment also presents an opportunity. Flexible ways of learning and working since the pandemic are opening up ways to connect women to rising job opportunities. Here are three ways we can support and empower women, to accelerate gender parity in Malaysia’s workforce.
Enable women to succeed at the workplace
When women have opportunities to learn at work — be it functional, technical, leadership or soft skills — it becomes an equalizer. As part of Axiata’s culture of continuous learning, women have multiple ways to develop technical skills, but also layer these with engagement skills. Creating platforms where women are able to develop all their capabilities to the fullest, levels the playing field. Women often struggle with building confidence. They are inclined to have self-doubts, and experience imposter syndrome. However, when they develop skills, women build their credibility by delivering on their own merit. Their confidence grows.
Organizations have the opportunity to rethink policies for new ways of working — be it flex days, flex time, remote working or daycare — and consciously embed diversity and inclusion across the HR life cycle. In talent acquisition, for example, by ensuring job descriptions are not gender biased and interview panels are not single gender.
Fresh perspectives are also needed to solve challenges like sticky floors and the glass ceiling. To help women leaders build the confidence to believe in themselves at work, Axiata’s Women in Leadership program pairs female leaders with senior leaders externally, giving them strong networking exposure, with the benefits of mentoring.
We cannot achieve gender parity unless we narrow the gender pay gap. Axiata Group has made a start with organizations conducting pay parity analysis and some have begun equalizing pay. Most roles in today’s workplace are not gender-based, there’s no reason for gender bias. Bringing greater pay transparency will be essential to give women an equal footing in the workplace.
Companies have to look at the opportunity from different angles, to achieve the ‘S’ in ESG — by training women, supporting them to advance and growing their representation on the board to shape better governance and more robust discussions.
Support women with access and pathways to develop in-demand skills
Problem solving, showing initiative, resilience, flexibility — these are some of the top 10 work skills employers will need by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Women across Malaysia already have this range of innate professional skills, which they practice while raising a family, providing care for the elderly or family members with special needs and managing a home.
Women can benefit from honing these skills, along with building essential hybrid workplace skills like project management and communication. With technology being leveraged in every field, women can gain significantly from developing technical skills. Coursera, one of the world’s leading online learning platforms, found in its 2023 global Job Skills report that human and digital skills are becoming increasingly interdependent. Skill sets that blend technical expertise and project management are now among the fastest-growing.
By learning flexibly online, more women in Malaysia are building the combination of in-demand skills that employers need. The share of STEM course enrollments on Coursera from women learners in Malaysia jumped from 29% in 2019 to 38% in 2022. These skills are preparing women for growing digital jobs, many of which can be done remotely. Communication, leadership and management are also top skill choices for women learners in Malaysia.
Learning online is knocking down barriers like mobility, safety and family obligations. Especially for women with care duties, it provides a viable way to continue learning, fitting it into their lives.
Nurturing a supportive ecosystem
How do we change at scale and at the pace we need to? An example is #Wonderwomen, an informal women’s group in Malaysia is collaborating to bring changes at various levels – at both policy and practice level, to make a large-scale difference. Calling the group #Wonderwomen was not arrogance, but reflective of its grander ambitions and a testament to women supporting women, to advance both professionally and personally.
Bold thinking and collective action are required to speed up progress towards gender parity. Malaysia’s 2023 re-tabled budget took a step towards incentivizing new mothers to return to the workforce. However, we need more solutions that get to the root of the problem.
Care challenges are a barrier for many women. Raising awareness for flexible skill development opportunities online, especially digital skills, can enable them to upskill even through a difficult phase at home. By expanding remote work opportunities, Malaysian employers can bring many more women back to the workforce, with the flexibility they require to sustain working. Businesses also benefit — diverse teams fuel innovation and are better positioned to build products that serve a company’s diverse customer base.
Finally, we all need to be a part of the movement that supports women to shake off their negative beliefs, inspiring them to excel. Encourage them to be audacious, to have courage and the conviction to believe that they can do it, and they will.
By Norlida (Oli) Azmi, Group Chief People Officer, Axiata Group, and Shravan Goli, Chief Operating Officer, Coursera